The Wall Street Journal
March 29, 2013
Mary MacLane was a genius. Or so she is swift to tell the reader in her 1902 memoir, “I Await the Devil’s Coming.” “You may gaze at and admire the picture in the front of this book,” MacLane writes. “It is the picture of a genius—a genius with a good strong young woman’s-body.” MacLane compares herself to literary powerhouses like Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and the once well-known diarist Marie Bashkirtseff. “They are all geniuses. And so, then, I am a genius—a genius in my own right.” This grandiosity may border on farce, but many of her contemporary readers might have been inclined to agree.
“I Await the Devil’s Coming,” written in the form of a diary, sold 80,000 copies in the first month of publication and earned MacLane more than $17,000 in royalties—something on the order of a half-million dollars today. The book was an early example of a hit confessional memoir, and a nearly unprecedented portrayal of a young woman’s inner life.
Praised by young women of the day as brilliant and original, and criticized by reviewers as mad and degenerate, MacLane was in many ways your typical 19-year-old: egotistical, headstrong, judgmental. Born in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1881, she had moved with her mother and stepfather to Butte, Mont., in 1889. In her diary, MacLane describes the prairie town—population 70,000 in the early 20th century—as “sand and barrenness” that is “so ugly indeed that it is near the perfection of ugliness.” She feels estranged from her family—”My mother, having been with me during the whole of my nineteen years, has an utterly distorted idea of my nature and its desires, if indeed she has any idea of it.” She can’t stand her neighbors—”The souls of these people are dumb.”
The fate of most young women in Butte—marrying a coal miner and raising children—was not on MacLane’s agenda. She confesses her attraction to her former schoolteacher, Frannie Corbin, whom she calls her “anemone lady”—”There is in me a masculine element that, when I am thinking of her, arises and overshadows all the others. . . . Do you think a man is the only creature with whom one may fall in love?” Aching for experience, longing to be saved from the desolate and dreary mining town, MacLane dramatically threatens to sacrifice all to the Devil in exchange for one small bit of happiness.
MacLane rejects God, accusing the Christian religion of being “full of hatred.” Rather, she fantastically hopes to one day marry Satan. “Periodically I fall completely, madly in love with the Devil. He is so fascinating, so strong—exactly the sort of man whom my wooden heart awaits.” In a vision in which MacLane proposes marriage, the Devil asks how she would like to be treated. She responds: “Hurt me, burn me, consume me with hot love, shake me violently, embrace me hard in your strong, steel arms . . . treat me cruelly, brutally.”
“I Await the Devil’s Coming” is not a work of high literary achievement. The writing rambles and repeats and is hermetically self-involved. But, lest we forget, MacLane was just 19. In the coming years her name would become a byword for freethinking, she would move to Chicago and New York, she would throw herself into a social whirlwind, meet other famous “geniuses,” fall in love with women. And at 34, she would return to Butte and write her second book, “I, Mary MacLane,” which details her life-threatening bout with scarlet fever and time on the East Coast. Though better written, “I, Mary MacLane” flopped. A little over a decade later, the author died under mysterious circumstances in a Chicago hotel.
What remains vivid about “I Await the Devil’s Coming” is not the quality of MacLane’s writing but her need to be heard. In MacLane’s own words: “What else is there for me, if not this book? And, oh, that some one may understand it!” Emerging from a hardscrabble culture, MacLane appeared like a meteor, this wild thing. That so many received her so fervently suggests, perhaps, she was not as unusual as she thought.
For original link, click here.